Centre for Knowledge, Innovation, Technology and Enterprise

Project Items

What is a Graduate Job?

Research Outline

In the context of increased and widening participation in higher education, commentators are concerned that the employment outcomes for graduates are below those which would traditionally be expected. This research project explores the employment expectations of undergraduates at two UK Universities.


Research Approach

We adopted a qualitative approach to explore the perceptions of graduate employment held by undergraduates, and their understanding and enactment of career self management. To capture the heterogeneity of the student population we drew upon focus group data from two Universities in the northeast of England which represent different parts of the sector – a Russell Group university and a post-1992 university. We conducted 15 focus groups at each institution, comprising students from a range of disciplines at different stages of their programme.


Preliminary Findings

The career expectations of participants appeared to be informed by a somewhat old fashioned view of graduate careers that is out of kilter with labour market realities. Their perceptions about ‘graduate jobs’ hark back to the era of elite education, failing to acknowledge the substantial increase in the proportion of young people entering universities, and the increased diversity of the student population. Students appeared to have internalised the idea of ‘graduates as higher earners’, with the majority of individuals making a distinction between graduate and non-graduate jobs in terms of salary. ‘Fast tracking’ and ‘high level entry’ were implicit in their definition of a graduate job, with characteristics of non-graduate employment identified as ‘starting at the bottom’ and being ‘low level’ in terms of skills, knowledge and qualifications required.


Despite a prevailing view that difficulties would be faced on entry to the labour market, an overwhelming majority of participants had not engaged in any career management strategies (E.g. Visiting the careers service, attending graduate careers fairs, applying for job or graduate training schemes), nor did they have any plans to. In addition, there was a general consensus that these kind of activities were something to be done after completion of their degree - or potentially after completion of a Masters which a large proportion of participants saw as the inevitable next step of their ‘career’.


Conclusions and Implications

When expected employment outcomes and labour market realities are so far apart there is a risk that new graduates will be discouraged when entering employment. This can lead to feelings of underemployment, the experience of which has been linked with negative consequences for individuals and society. In addition a lack of engagement with individual career management strategies and behaviours can have negative long term consequences for individual career success.


Undergraduate degree programmes equip students with a range of skills, and in recent years there has been a great deal of attention paid to the nature and type of skills that should be developed. However, this does not automatically result in a specified labour market outcome – there is a need for receptivity and engagement by the student in both reflective and behavioural components of career management. Our study highlights limited recognition from students of the need to do this. We are not suggesting individuals should adopt an instrumental attitude towards their study – continuously wondering “what will this do for my CV?” – but we highlight the need to emphasise the importance of these behaviours to students, and to wider audiences. This research contributes to emerging debates on education to employment transitions.


Conference papers 

Scurry T, Blenkinsopp J. Unknowing and unprepared? Undergraduate expected labour market outcomes and career management strategies. In: Society for Research in Higher Education. 2011, Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales, UK. 


Scurry T, Blenkinsopp J, Hay A. What is a graduate job? Insights from undergraduate students of expected graduate employment outcomes. In: BSA- Work, Employment and Society Conference. 2010, Brighton, UK: The British Sociological Association. In Press.


Research Report 

Scurry T, Blenkinsopp J, and Peake, S. (2012) What is a graduate job? Insights from undergraduate students of expected graduate employment outcomes